Thugs, Telecoms, and Taxes (Part 2)

sanchez ceren 2
President Sanchez Ceren’s administration introduced a telecommunication tax last year. The aim of the tax is to fund security initiatives. Will it work?

Edit: After I published this post, La Prensa Grafica reported on February 5 that the telecom tax has so far raised $2.5 million for the country’s security projects. However, as of January 20, no funds had been allocated to any projects. Earlier in the week, President Sanchez Ceren stated that funds would be used for bonuses for soldiers, police officers, and prison staff.

Late last year, El Salvador took an unusual step in its fight against street-crime by introducing a telecommunication tax to fund security initiatives. Controversy surrounded the tax as critics claimed it was hastily implemented and without stakeholder consultation. I wrote about it in more detail here.

Because we are at the end of the tax’s second month, I thought it would be a good opportunity for some checking-in and evaluation. What has transpired since early December?

I hesitated when I first conceived this post because of how recent these events are. However, I’ve decided that the issue is worth examining so long as I approach it with caution; I’m careful to not conclude whether this initiative is an all-out success or a complete failure.  While it might be early into the security plan, this will give us a sense of what to expect for the future.

The Results So Far

It’s hard to evaluate an initiative which has only existed for two months, but it’s important to watch this program with a finely-tuned lens because of the socio-economic ramifications it carries. After all, this security plan is one which reaches deep into the pockets of the country’s poorest population (it’s supposed to contribute $6 million to security operations). Are Salvadorians getting a good bang for their buck?

As of the date of this blog post, the answer seems to be: no.

Homicide numbers in El Salvador did not decrease in the month of January. In fact, the country’s homicide count throughout the first 17 days of this January was higher than the number of homicides throughout all 31 days of January in both 2014 and 2015. Moreover, El Diario de Hoy reported that more small businesses are subject to gang extortions today than they were at the start of President Sanchez Ceren’s term in office.

Homicides for the month of Jan
Source: Created with data from El Diario de Hoy. The 2016 figure only accounts for January 1-January 17.

If the statistics aren’t indicative enough of the country’s security struggles, then the recent actions by the country’s police officers are. In late January, police officers across the country staged a protest in San Salvador, marching from Plaza El Salvador del Mundo to the President’s house. Their demands included better pay, better working conditions, and for the government to follow through on promises made with the new telecom tax. They argued that they weren’t compensated enough given the high-risk nature of their jobs–chasing gang members not only puts officers in danger, but their families too.

Indeed, the number of officers who have quit the country’s police force has steadily grown in the last couple of years: from 180 in 2013 to 358 in 2015.

Resigned officers
Source: Created with data from La Prensa Grafica

The situation has also had ramifications on international aid: the US Peace Corps, which have served in El Salvador since 1962 (US Peace Corps, Paragraph 1) announced on January 16 that it was suspending all operations in El Salvador “due to the ongoing security environment”.

So, as it appears, things are not looking bright for President Ceren’s new security initiative. In the government’s defence, it has stated that while it’s true that homicide levels remained high throughout the month of January, it’s due in large part to gangs undertaking internal “purging” processes of their members. The message is clear: better a gang member’s life be taken than an innocent Salvadorian’s.

Ethical questions aside, the argument is hard to corroborate. There are two reasons for this.

Getting Things Straight

First, the definition of “gang member” is unclear, and this makes it difficult to discern between who is a “gang member” and who is just “gang affiliated”. Suppose that the majority of these cases are comprised of gang members. Were homicide victims actual members of gangs, or were they regular citizens coerced into working for gangs? This is significant because it leaves vulnerable groups—women, small business owners, children and teenagers—at risk of being identified as “gang members”. Similar to how drug cartels use “plata or plomo” tactics to meet their goals (as I have written about in a previous blog post), gangs use passive-aggressive tactics in their efforts to maintain strangleholds on neighbourhoods.

Douglas Melendez
El Salvador has a new Attorney General, Douglas Melendez

This relates to the second reason. As El Salvador’s new Attorney General Douglas Melendez stated in an interview with El Faro, “there’s no clear way” to determine what percentage of deaths are comprised of gang members. That’s because there isn’t any sort of “gang member registry” that exists in El Salvador. This also makes it hard to enforce Anti-Gang or Anti-terrorism laws on gangsters who are captured alive.

Moreover, even if one did exist, the question which begs to be asked is that, with the ever growing numbers of gang members in the country, would the government be willing to maintain such a registry? El Diario de Hoy reported on January 14 that the ARENA party (the country’s dominant right-wing political party) would propose legislation to create a sort of registry. However, with political jabs constantly being thrown from the ruling FMLN and ARENA, it’s hard to determine whether such a proposition would be made out of a true desire to lower crime rates or as a way to rack up political support. It’s hard to tell; it appears as though there is little transparency when it comes to Salvadorian politics.

And other countries recognize this.

In what might be a first for Salvadorian politics, Attorney General Melendez told reporters in mid-January that he was worried about criminal penetration in his office. This is not only alarming because of what it means for criminal influence within the government, but it also undermines the goals sought by El Salvador’s new telecommunication tax (which, as we have established thus far, is not meeting its objectives).

policias
Police officers protest earlier in January. Source: El Diario de Hoy

It’s with this spirit that the United Nations and El Salvador have launched a 3-year anti-corruption program in the country. The program is backed by the US which, through USAID, already has another $25 million anti-corruption program operating in El Salvador (see: Insight Crime Analysis). US involvement has been historically significant for El Salvador, both politically and economically. Simply put, if El Salvador wants to attract US investors into the country, it must address its security issues.

The new three-year program’s price tag was left undisclosed, but what is certain is that, according to Reuters, it “lacks the broad investigative powers of the U.N.-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala”, an initiative that was “instrumental” in linking Guatemalan President Otto Perez to corruption charges. This forced Perez out of his presidency in 2015.  The hope is that the USAID and UN projects will help weed out the corruption that exists in government offices by training Salvadorian officials to spot corruption.

For this program to work, though, a great amount of cooperation and transparency is needed on El Salvador’s part. This is especially important because the new anti-corruption program lacks any serious investigative powers. Like other initiatives, only time will tell if the goals set out with this one are met and whether transparency is attained.

A Work in Progress

While it is early to evaluate the effectiveness of the government’s telecom tax law, an analysis of the tax’s first two months have shown that it has produced no results. Homicide numbers in January were higher than in the Januaries of two previous years. While it’s too early to judge the efficacy of the country’s latest security initiative, new concerns by the new attorney general regarding criminal penetration in government are worrisome for the country’s future. For the time being, El Salvador will rely on foreign aid to clean the dirt from its government.

small businesses
Small businesses are constantly extorted by El Salvador’s gangs. Source: El Diario de Hoy

What this early analysis has reinforced is that change in El Salvador will not come overnight. It has also shown the shortcomings of a telecom tax as a band-aid solution. Simply throwing money at crime prevention won’t make crime go away. Clearly, if there is any true desire for this tax to be effective (some have argued that not only is it completely unnecessary, it’s also unconstitutional), what is needed is change at a higher, institutional level.

On an editorial note: a few days ago, I was listening to an interview on a Salvadorian radio station (Cadena Mi Gente) where a police-protester, who was at the protest mentioned at the beginning of this post, claimed that a security official had orders to fire on protesters if “things got out of hand”. The official decided to turn a blind eye and let the protesters go about with their demonstration.

“Imagine if he had fired, though,” the interviewing officer said. “They have guns. We have guns. It would’ve been an all-out war in the street.”

I tend to steer clear from radio political commentaries, especially ones from El Salvador, as I find that opinions are too often based on anecdotal evidence or an over-reliance of political ideology. However, whether this man’s testimony was real or not, this interview raised an important question: how much violence will be needed to create peace?

Attorney General Melendez stated that “everything indicates” that Salvadorian police officers actively commit extrajudicial killings. Based on the social media comments on gang-related news articles that I have seen in the last four years, a significant portion of the population has no problem with these acts, so long as they result in a dead gang member. The question of ethics around homicide rates is yet again raised.

El Salvador has long yearned for peace. The war of the 1980s left the country striving for economic and social progress. It is still possible for it to reach these goals, but if the first two months of the tax are indicative of long-term progress, the country is taking two steps backward for every step that it’s taking forward.

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